LINGUIST List 28.98

Thu Jan 05 2017

Review: Discourse Analysis; Historical Ling; Socioling: Lou (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 07-Aug-2016
From: Laura Callahan <>
Subject: The Linguistic Landscape of Chinatown
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Jackie Jia Lou
TITLE: The Linguistic Landscape of Chinatown
SUBTITLE: A Sociolinguistic Ethnography
SERIES TITLE: Encounters
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Laura Michele Callahan, City College of New York (CUNY)

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The Linguistic Landscape of Chinatown, by Jackie Jia Lou, contains a preface, six chapters, four appendices, references, and an index. It reports on an ethnographic investigation of Chinatown in Washington, D.C. (hereafter D.C.).

Chapter 1, “Conceptualizing Linguistic Landscape: Language, Space and Place”, opens with an anecdote plus the titles of two newspaper articles that call attention to perceptions of D.C.’s Chinatown as inauthentic. The author then proceeds to an overview of approaches taken in earlier work on linguistic landscapes, followed by an exposition of the theories that shaped her own research design, chiefly from sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology.

In the process, Lou references numerous studies including several that predate the emergence of linguistic landscape as a discipline, highlighting their potential for contributions to a reconceptualization of the field. Definitions of space and place from the various perspectives of sociology, anthropology, and human geography are given. Symbolic (representational) versus material (physical, economic) forces are often in contention, which later on in the book the author demonstrates to be true also for D.C.’s Chinatown.

Geosemiotic framework (Scollon & Scollon 2003) and nexus analysis (Scollon & Scollon 2004) are two of the theoretical constructs important to this investigation. Geosemiotic framework is divided into three categories: interaction order, visual semiotics, and place semiotics. Goffman’s (1981) production format also plays a role. Lou draws from Kress & van Leeuwen (2001) to add designer, producer, and distributor to Goffman’s original concepts of animator, author, and principal. Finally, we are reminded that a consideration of linguistic and material resources (Blommaert 2005) is essential to the study of linguistic landscapes, and that such resources imply not only linguistic skills but also the financial wherewithal to pay for signage.

In Chapter 2, “Approaching Chinatown: Background and Methodology”, the author first provides historical and demographic information on Chinatown. She then presents her research design. The methodology includes photography, ethnographic observation, interviews, maps drawn by interviewees, video recordings of meetings and events, and document collection.

Chapter 3, “Chinatown as Heterotopia: Urban Revitalization Through Linguistic Landscape”, reports on specific features of signage on Chinese and non-Chinese stores in Chinatown. Lou shows how mandates requiring Chinese signage on all commercial establishments have resulted in only a superficial homogeneity. Differences become apparent in code preference (with the preferred language located above the other one), color scheme (when one language is in a brighter color than the other), text vectors (whether text is read from top to bottom, left to right, etc.), symmetrical composition, and emplacement (where on a building a sign is affixed). These differences in signage make of Chinatown a heterotopia (Foucault 1986 [1967]), in which one can appreciate “the competing discourses of preservation, development and revitalization” (p. 58). Lou argues that “it is more important to recognize its heterogeneous nature than simply to take it as a lucrative program of urban revitalization without also recognizing the conflicts and compromises made during the process” (pp. 58-59).

In Chapter 4, “Situating Linguistic Landscape in Time”, the concepts of timescales (Lemke 2000), nexus analysis (Scollon & Scollon 2004), and mediated discourse analysis (Scollon 2001) are used to examine “changes in participant structure, and in material, political and economic resources over time” (p. 60). The timescales range from longer to shorter periods, spanning more than a century, two decades, or the duration of a community meeting. The author traces the evolution of Chinatown and its representations, from the first waves of Chinese immigration to the Western U.S., to the movement of Chinese laborers to East Coast cities, to the Civil Rights Movement, to downtown development in Washington, D.C., and finally to newer waves of Chinese immigration.

Chapter 5, “Situating Linguistic Landscape in Space”, examines “the juxtaposition of social spaces and places” (p. 88) in D.C.’s Chinatown. The notion of ritual place is contrasted with that of lived place, and the features that make this Chinatown more of a ritual place and less of a lived one are presented. Its Friendship Archway and Chinese street lamps epitomize Lefebvre’s (1991) concept of monumental space, intended more for tourists than for area residents. Among ritual celebrations, the Chinese New Year parade is “a platform event, a type of interaction outlined by Goffman (1983)” (p. 97). The tourist gaze (Urry 2005) completes the concept of Chinatown as a ritual place.

The author next contemplates Chinatown as a lived place, using Blommaert et al.’s (2005a, 2005b) concept of polycentricity and Goffman’s (1983) interaction order in her analysis. She disproves the popular perception that D.C.’s Chinatown is a place where no Chinese people actually live. We see maps drawn by residents of Chinatown and by daily commuters who work there. These maps and the interviews conducted with the people who drew them show how Chinatown “is discursively aligned with or against other places on various spatial scales: specifically, China and the United States on the scale of nation-state; Washington, DC, on the scale of city; and other American Chinatowns on the scale of neighborhood” (p. 89). Conflicts between different interests are revealed, such as the forces that favor commercial development over preservation of ethnic character.

Chapter 6, “Conclusion and Reflection”, recapitulates the findings reported on in preceding chapters, and then moves to a consideration of practical applications. It concludes with a summary of theoretical contributions to sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology.


This book offers both a comprehensive analysis of the linguistic landscape of Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown and an admirable example of how an integrative research design can enhance a linguistic landscape study. It is an impeccably presented piece of research that focuses on one place but at the same time has clear connections to the wider debates of the discipline.

There are many figures, such as photos, maps, posters, drawings, and excerpts of documents. These greatly enhance the author’s arguments, despite the fact that all of the graphics are in black and white and in some cases details are difficult to see. This limitation is ameliorated by in-text descriptions of colors and other pertinent aspects.

Parts of the book are less amenable to a non-specialist readership. As can occur with any theoretically rich exposition, it is not always easy to keep track of the multitude of terms used. Passages laden with theoretical terminology may discourage readers who are unfamiliar with the references. A glossary of terms would be helpful, even though such a feature is admittedly not the norm for a monograph. In this way the author’s knowledge could go even further to help less experienced readers navigate the ever-evolving discipline of linguistic landscapes. This would be especially valuable in light of the recommendation that the book be read by residents (Stroud, back cover).

Indeed, this book would be of great interest to urban planners and community activists alike. As the author notes, “[t]he research findings should also prove useful for practical community-based projects that aim to restore the discursive equilibrium of the neighborhood” (p. 136). At the very least, Lou’s work could help residents begin to recognize and disentangle the complex processes by which, in Lefebvre’s words, “monumental buildings mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought” (Lefebvre 1991: 143, quoted in Lou, p. 94).

In sum, The Linguistic Landscape of Chinatown: A Sociolinguistic Ethnography is a valuable contribution to the literature on linguistic landscapes, based on a meticulous and multifaceted investigation. It will be of interest to researchers working in the fields of linguistic landscape and discourse analysis, and it is a text eminently appropriate for graduate level courses.


Blommaert, Jan. 2005. Discourse. A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, Jan, James Collins & Stef Slembrouck. 2005a. Polycentricity and interactional regimes in ‘global neighborhoods’. Ethnography 6(2). 205-235.

Blommaert, Jan, James Collins & Stef Slembrouck. 2005b. Spaces of multilingualism. Language and Communication 25. 197-216.

Foucault, Michel. 1986 [1967]. Of other spaces, heterotopias. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5.

Goffman, Erving. 1981. Footing. In Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 124-159.

Goffman, Erving. 1983. The interaction order. American Sociological Review 48(1). 1-17.

Kress, Gunther & Theo van Leeuwen. 2001. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. (D. Nicholson-Smith, trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Lemke, Jay L. 2000. Across the scales of time: Artifacts, activities, and meanings in ecosocial systems. Mind, Culture, and Activity 7(4). 273-290.

Scollon, Ron. 2001. Mediated Discourse: The Nexus of Practice. London: Routledge.

Scollon, Ron & Suzie Wong Scollon. 2003. Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World. London: Routledge.

Scollon, Ron & Suzie Wong Scollon. 2004. Nexus Analysis: Discourse and the Emerging Internet. London: Routledge.

Urry, John. 2005. The ‘consuming’ of place. In Discourse, Communication and Tourism, eds. A. Jaworski & A. Pritchard. 19-27. Clevedon: Channel View Productions.


Laura Callahan is currently a Visiting Professor in the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures at Santa Clara University. Previous appointments include The City College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Michigan State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to linguistic landscapes, her research interests have centered on codeswitching and other contact phenomena; language, race, and identity; intercultural communication; and heritage language maintenance. Her recent publications include an article on Spanish in the linguistic landscape of museums: Museums as a site for racialization and heritage language maintenance. Heritage Language Journal. 2014, 11-2: 98-122.

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